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September 1, 2013

Gary Anton, left, and Mac Arnold
GARY ANTON, left, a board certified Tallahassee lawyer, unveils a tabletop portrait of blues legend Mac Arnold at the Bradfordville Blues Club. Anton manages the historic cinder-block roadhouse on the weekends to indulge his passion to “keep the blues alive.”

‘Lawyer by day; bluesman by night’

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Severe abdominal pain sent Tallahassee lawyer Gary Anton to the emergency room on October 24, 1999. Barely surviving acute pancreatitis — two weeks in a coma, a month in the hospital, followed by a few months in rehab — Anton woke up with a new understanding about the fragility of life and a new purpose.

“I realized there is life beyond the billable hour. There’s a lot more to life than chasing the dollars,” said Anton, now 62.

“I was a board certified civil trial lawyer, litigating around the country. Everybody was controlling my calendar, but me. I went to work one morning and my daughter was in diapers. When I came home, she was in high school. It went by that quickly.”

Promising himself he would do more of what he loved to do, Anton and his wife Kim grabbed the opportunity to revive a shuttered blues club with a big reputation in January 2002.

This is no ordinary blues club.

About 13 miles north of downtown Tallahassee, down a rutted dirt road at 7152 Moses Lane, the historic Bradfordville Blues Club is a humble cinder-block roadhouse with a 120-person capacity, where Grammy winners James Cotton and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Howlin’ Wolf’s lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin are among the blues greats who have graced the stage.

Shaded by sprawling patriarch oaks draped with Spanish moss, the “BBC” bears this historical marker from the Mississippi Blues Commission: “The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Florida. North Florida’s urban clubs and rural roadhouses, including clubs that have operated at this historic Bradfordville location, have played an important role in the history of the Gulf Coast ‘chitlin circuit’ for traveling African-American blues, jazz and R&B musicians.”

Anton is the recipient of the 2010 Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation, and the BBC was selected by Downbeat magazine in 2012 as “One of the Top International Music Venues.”

“I am a real fan of the blues and this is just a wonderful place to go in the woods to hear some really good blues,” said Roy King, from nearby Monticello, on a recent night at the BBC. “It’s a roadhouse in the woods. I hit the road to Mississippi and Arkansas trying to find places like this. And here’s one right here in our backyard in Tallahassee.”

Ernestine Fryson fries fish for the club’s blues patrons who wander over to the nearby rough-wood shed near the bonfire pit. The BBC sits proudly on rural acreage owned since the turn of the 20th century by the Henry family, who raised potatoes and corn and sugarcane, and as the lore goes, turned the cane into sweet moonshine called “buck” they sold from a buggy with a false bottom.

The Henry family built the cinder-block building in 1964, opening it as a community center and after-hours music club. In the late ’80s, the Henrys closed the club, and in 1992 Dave Claytor reopened it as Dave’s C.C., christened after the C.C. Saints, a black baseball team that played on this land from the ’30s to the ’80s.

A member of the extended Henry family — Ernestine Fryson — guards her secret recipe for frying fresh fish that she cooks up in a big pot over propane gas and sells by the plateful at $7 each to blues patrons at the club who wander over to the nearby rough-wood shed near the bonfire pit.

Gary and Kim Anton instantly fell in love with this unique juke that’s a throwback to an earlier era, helping Claytor take tickets, serve cold beer behind the bar, and organize blues festivals under tents. When Claytor couldn’t make the club work financially and sadly shut it down, the Antons “got together with friends” and bought the assets of the club.

“When we took it over, we didn’t have any idea what we were going to do with the place,” Gary Anton said. “We hoped it would make money. We hoped it would pay for itself. It’s done neither.”

But riches that money can’t buy flow generously from the BBC.

On a recent evening, Kim Anton is taking tickets at the door under a sign that warns: “Respect Our Bar: Don’t Drink from Your Vehicle.” Married to Gary for 37 years, a nurse who helped pull him through his sickness, Kim Anton says: “All during the week, it’s the drudgery of life. When the music starts up, Gary just starts beaming. Once he gets here, he’s got that big smile. He gets out and talks to people. This is what keeps him going. This is his lifeline.”

The BBC is listed on the historic Blues Trail. Gary Anton, a member of both the Labor and Employment Law and Alternative Dispute Resolution sections, still keeps his day job as a lawyer. Though he says he makes a tenth of what he once did, he has more flexibility to run the club on weekends, now that he’s focusing more on arbitration and mediation and is board certified in labor and employment law.

“Lawyer by day, bluesman by night,” is how he describes himself, admitting he often doesn’t make it home until 5 a.m. on the weekends, because he loves hanging out with the blues musicians and the extended family of volunteers at the club, like sound man Walter Potter, who’s a tech wizard with a day job at Florida State University, and a motley crew of patrons he calls the “irregulars.”

There have been marriage proposals on stage, and weddings at the BBC with Anton officiating.

The club is smoke-free, TV-free, and pool-table-free, with patrons happily focused on the stellar music throbbing from the stage.

It’s a way to live vicariously, Anton says.

“I’ve been a blues fan since the 1960s, back when I was in garage bands. I fancied myself a decent guitar player. I screwed up and went to law school,” Anton says with a laugh.

Kim Anton works the BBC's door. Receiving his law degree from FSU, Anton said he probably would have taken over the practice of his father — the late Alfred Anton, who had a civil practice in Miami.

“But we had our daughter my second year in law school. And I thought no way am I going back to South Florida. I got that hankering for fish and cheese grits.”

It doesn’t get any more rural North Florida than driving up the dirt road to the Bradfordville Blues Club.

“Open that door, and you get the scent of blues and beer. Open that door, and it’s like a shot of B-12. When we turn on the lights and set up the stage, I get a shot of energy,” Anton says.

Blues musicians proclaim the BBC is one of their favorite places to play because it’s not neon and glitzy and touristy, but an authentic juke joint with a golden history and a good vibe. Every tabletop is painted with the portrait of musicians who have rocked the club, with more hanging on the cinder-block walls painted bright blue. The eclectic décor includes blue lights in the shape of a saxophone to a sign that says: “Requests $1.00; Mustang Sally $10.00.”

Singer Fiona Boyes wrote a song (you can hear on the website www.bradfordvilleblues.com): “Take me to the juke joint on Moses Lane. . . . It ain’t on the highway, but the folks know where to go. Outside they’re frying catfish. Inside they’re raising Cain.”

Florida Bar Board of Governors member Bill Davis bobs his head to the beat on a recent night, saying, “This is a labor of love for Gary Anton. As a result, it is wonderfully done.”

Club patron Spencer Wolfe said: “Gary Anton is so passionate about continuing the legacy of the BBC. I admire his personal commitment to provide quality music at an iconic venue that is truly one of our local treasures.”

Tallahassee bassist, singer, and songwriter Jim Crozier said: “I was up in Carolina the other day for a blues jam, and everybody there knew about the Bradfordville Blues Club. This is absolutely a stop on the tour.”

The BBC really belongs to the musicians and the patrons, Gary Anton says.

“Kim and I are the current stewards of the place. It has such a history and colorful heritage. When Dave closed it, we couldn’t let it die. We continue to operate it so the club can remain an institution among the family and blues players. I would hope somebody might come behind us and continue to keep the blues alive.”

[Revised: 08-29-2014]